The many sides to muzzleloading.
Call it muzzleloading mania if you will, but the fact is, black powder shooting has become almost as popular as health food and skateboards. Every year more and more sportsmen discover what old-timers to the game have known all along--muzzleloading offers a unique blend of tradition and technology, coupled with so many choices that almost anybody with a yen to fire a frontloader can find a comfortable niche.
Rifles, pistols, shotguns, muskets, revolvers--you name it and somebody's shooting it. Never before have manufacturers had to work so hard to meet the demands and pocketbook of the consumer--and consumers have never before been so sophisticated. Happily, the result of this dual growth has been a proliferation of such fine reproduction firearms and components that even the master gunsmiths of the past could have learned a few things from examining them. Yet, to those just getting started, this multi-faceted sport can seem pretty overwhelming at first. That's why it is so important to learn a few black powder basics and become acquainted with the major types of firearms on the market before investing too many dollars in equipment.
As most shooters currently involved with black powder can attest, the muzzleloading rifle and single-shot pistol are the most common firearm choices, especially among beginners. Since both are loaded in basically the same manner, let's begin by taking a look at this vital procedure. Before anything is put down a muzzleloading rifle or pistol, the bore must be clean and dry. In the case of a gun with a percussion lock system, the nipple and flash channel must be clear also. The latter can be checked by pointing the gun's muzzle at a blade of grass and snapping a few percussion caps. If the grass moves when the cap goes off, all's well and misfires should not be a problem. Flintlocks don't require such pre-testing, since running a vent pick into the touch hole liner is easier and faster than firing a priming charge. To begin the actual loading process, measure out the powder charge recommended for your type of gun and shooting situation, then pour it down the bore. A variety of adjustable measures are available to help you get a uniform charge every time. Next, place a lubricated cloth patch over the muzzle and seat the ball flush on top of it. You can purchase patches that are pre-cut to the proper diameter for almost all popular calibers in several different thicknesses; some are even pre-lubricated.
For target shooting when the shot will be fired immediately, you can get away with a light moistening with water, but in hunting situations where there's a guaranteed delay, a light grease or oil will do a better job of preventing drying out, freezing, or moisture from reaching the powder charge. The tightness of the patch and ball in the bore, of course, greatly affects accuracy and ease of loading, so keep in mind one general overriding principle: A very tight combination is usually more accurate, but harder to load; whereas a loose fit tends to go in easily without a bullet starter, but can only perform well enough for hunting or informal plinking.
Once the ball has been seated to starter depth, use the ramrod to push it the rest of the way down to the top of the powder charge. This is a crucial step, since an improperly seated ball can result in an exploding barrel. Ramrods are available in wood, brass and nylon, all of which are good if handled properly. The major safety rule to remember is to never grip the rod at the top and always seat the ball in stages to reduce the chance of breakage. The last step to proper loading is priming. With a percussion system this entails simply placing a cap on the nipple. A flintlock, on the other hand, requires the hammer to be placed on the half-cock position, the frizzen to be opened, and a small amount of 4F black powder poured in the pan. For faster ignition with the flintlock, it helps to be certain that the powder doesn't come in contact with the touch hole.
Although rifled and singe-shot pistols are universally popular, rifles perhaps have the edge, primarily because of their versatility. Regular target shooting is of course one major activity, but so are primitive events which make heavy use of the flintlock rifle in combination with period costumes, tomahawks and throwing knives. In addition, many states have established special hunting seasons geared solely to the black powder rifleman. Some also have special hunting areas for muzzleloaders. Prices for good reproductions start at about $225.00, but kits and individual components are also available to the do-it-yourselfer.
Single-shot pistols also can be put together from kits or selected parts. The cost is lower than for a similar quality rifle, but pistol shooting represents a greater challenge to the shooter. Target shooting is the primary focus, but a limited amount of small game hunting comes into play as well. Those who aim to enter competition with a single-shot pistol need to pay special attention to the rate of twist of the rifling. An effective pistol needs a rate of twist of about one turn in 22 inches.
Still another area of muzzleloading that's growing in popularity is shotgunning, both on the trap range and in the hunting field. Single- and double-barreled reproductions are available. Depending upon the load, they compare favorable in range and power with their modern counterparts.
Shotgun loading consists of placing a measured charge of black powder down the bore. This is followed by one or two fiber filler wads, a pre-measured shot charge and an over-shot wad. All kinds of devices exist to simplify the operation, including automatic shot pouches, graduated dippers, and speed shells. You can also buy special wads designed in a number of sizes to fit muzzleloading shotguns. The major rule-of-thumb to remember is when loading a double barreled gun always be sure to place a complete load in each bore rather than two powder or shot charges in the same one.
While the Bicentennial boosted the muzzleloading musket to new heights of popularity, this is one gun that has played a vital role throughout the modern muzzleloading era. Ranging from the smoothbore flintlock Brown Bess of the Revolution to the rifled percussion 1861 Springfield or 3-Band Enfield of the Civil War, muskets have one major thing in common: paper cartridges. Although several modern systems, including a plastic or cardboard open-end tube for minie balls and a heavy-walled tube with a removable cap for either parched round ball or conical bullets, are common in the marketplace, paper cartridges are traditional, inexpensive and fun to use.
Basically, a paper cartridge consists of a powder charge and a round ball or conical projectile rolled in a piece of paper and sealed at both ends. During use, one end of the roll is torn off and the powder is poured down the bore followed by the bullet and the remaining paper. Naturally, in the case of a flintlock, a small amount of powder must be reserved for the priming pan too. Military units around the world have used this system to great effect for faster reloading and as a solution to the problem of ammunition handling and distribution.
The final category of muzzleloading shooting is the revolver, and we've saved it for last precisely because of its uniqueness. Two basic styles exist: the Remington-type with a rigid frame surrounding the cylinder and the Colt-type with no top strap across the cylinder. Sportsmen who engage heavily in revolver shooting are better off foregoing both brass frame revolvers and the Colt variety since neither has the durability to withstand constant use.
One major area of confusion for new revolver shooters is bullet size. Unlike a rifle, which uses a patched bullet smaller than the bore, a revolver takes and oversized projectile which is forced into a chamber with a mechanical lever. For example, a revolver that is labeled .44 caliber actually fires a .451- or .454-inch diameter ball, while a .36 caliber fires a .375-inch ball.
To load a revolver, first inspect it for dirt and oil, then fire a cap on each nipple. Next, place a measured powder charge in each chamber and follow this with a greased felt wad topped with a lead ball. If wads are unavailable, you can also load by putting in the powder and ball, then sealing each chamber with a light commercially available grease. The wad or grease provides a seal which prevents two or more chambers from firing simultaneously.
When they were first developed, muzzleloaders were implements or war and survival. Later, with the advent of modern firearms implementing a self-contained cartridge, their popularity declined to the point where they were no longer being produced on a commercial basis. Interest in black powder remained virtually dormant until the first half of the 20th century when a relatively small group of enthusiasts realized its potential as a sporting tool and began holding muzzleloading competitions. Most depended upon antiques. A few hand-crafted their guns, but all were severely hampered until the start of the muzzleloading reproduction industry in the 1950's.
Since then, the ranks of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association have swelled to over 23,000 members and interest in black powder has spread world-wide, enabling muzzleloading competition between more than a dozen countries, including the United States, to become an annual event. Additionally, the National Rifle Association, long a champion of the "modern" shooter, has formed a special black powder committee. There are many possible reasons for this phenomenal growth, but old-timers in the sport remain convinced that it all comes back to the fact that muzzleloading is as friendly as a campfire and roomy as a tent with enough variation to please just about everybody!
The Log Cabin Sport Shop has a full line of muzzleloading supplies available either at the shop located in Lodi, Ohio, or through their mail-order catalog. Catalog #44 is now available for $5.00. Call (800) 237-1082 today with your Visa, Mastercard, or Discover to order your copy!
They also have information on the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association, and other, smaller clubs around the country who provide an outlet for your muzzleloading interests. Call (330) 948-1082 for more information.